|For Immediate Release |
October 29, 2003
|Donald Lehr - The Nolan/Lehr Group |
FROM THE WONDROUS WORKS OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS,
NEWFOUND ABILITIES TO SEE, HEAR, SPEAK, AND WALK
Their profession is electrical engineering, but their achievements are nothing short of miraculous: helping the physically challenged to speak, hear, walk and visualize in ways never before possible. Though most people associate advances in modern medical wonders with doctors, it is often engineers -- especially electrical engineers -- who are behind the groundbreaking developments that are opening vast new opportunities for millions of people.
From tiny cochlear implants that replace destroyed ear drums to the type of computer-generated speech used by Stephen Hawking, electrical engineers combine a deep awareness of their own discipline with an astounding knowledge of the human body to open vast new areas of opportunity for people who might otherwise remain trapped in lives of darkness, silence and immobility.
"If somebody from even a few years ago saw the type of things we do, they’d call us miracle workers," says John W. Steadman, P.E., Ph.D., President-Elect of the U.S. career enhancement arm of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (known as the IEEE, pronounced Eye-triple-E), a non-profit, technical professional association representing more than 380,000 members in 150 countries. IEEE-USA promotes the careers and public-policy interests of U.S. IEEE members. Dr. Steadman adds: "But, those of us in the profession have been nurturing these developments along for so many years, it's all in a day's work. It’s simply what we do."
Well, perhaps not so simple. Take, for example, the latest in braille printing technology. ViewPlus Technologies, based in Corvallis, Oregon, has refined printing techniques that allow personal computers to generate documents with easy-access graphics and mathematical formulas for the blind. The company's founder, Dr. John Gardner, a physicist and Professor Emeritus at Oregon State University, who has been blind since 1988, began his work as part of the acclaimed Science Access Project at Oregon State.
Among the company's developments are braille embossers that use mainstream Windows software to directly print braille and tactile graphics, including three-dimensional graphics. The company also produces a calculator that allows for mathematics accessibility through audio or braille.
The IEEE/IEEE-USA is co-chair, along with the Fluor Corporation, of National Engineers Week 2004, February 22-28. Joseph V. Lillie, the chair of National Engineers Week and the IEEE's lead EWeek volunteer, adds that the Institute is involved in areas ranging from computer engineering, telecommunications, consumer electronics, aerospace and electric power.
Yet, according to Lillie, several factors have brought the medical work of the association's membership to the fore. The IEEE's members, for example, are leading the way with the latest in robotic prostheses, functional electrical stimulation for damaged limbs and magnetic resonance imaging, all areas of immense public interest.
Further, EWeek 2004 Chair Lillie says, a recent change in Medicare funding may signal an opening of new medical technologies for potentially tens of thousands of people. For example, two years ago, Medicare decided that devices that augment and facilitate communications qualify for funding, putting such devices in the same category as wheelchairs. Now many people who had waited years for help in paying for computer-assisted technologies, such as sufferers of Lou Gehrig's disease who often lose the motor skills necessary to speak, are eligible for the kind of speech device made famous by Dr. Stephen Hawking.
Such machines, because they must be calibrated to meet the specific needs of each user, are expensive, so Medicare's move to offer financial assistance may mean a boon for those in need. Additionally, the new funding may also result in better and more affordable technologies, since increased demand can spur the industry to respond with more research and development.
Some believe that opening the door to communication devices will lead to advances in technology assistance in other areas as well. This, however, may be limited by budgetary problems facing all entitlement programs, including Medicare.
In the meantime, the jury is still out on exactly what the broadening of the latest Medicare rules may mean. Since program rules stipulate that the devices, typically laptop computers, can be used solely for medical purposes, each computer must be fitted with "locks" that prevent use for anything other than speech communication. Stephen Hawking's laptop, for example, would not be covered.
Still, no one doubts that the Medicare move is a watershed event, since many states and private insurance companies often look to the national program for guidance.
IEEE-USA President-Elect Steadman notes that regardless of how Medicare funding issues shake out, the work of the Institute's membership will proceed apace. "These are people who are going to keep going back to the drawing board, literally, to invent, improve and refine these technologies because it’s the nature of the profession," he says. "It's who we are."
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Founded in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers, National Engineers Week (February 22-28, 2004) is celebrated annually by thousands of engineers, engineering students, teachers and leaders in government and business. The National Engineers Week consortium includes more than 100 engineering, scientific and education societies, and major corporations dedicated to encouraging precollege interest in engineering and to increasing public awareness and appreciation of technology and the engineering profession. Co-chairs for 2004 are The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.-USA (IEEE-USA) and the Fluor Corporation.